Photo: Flickr via mancosu
Some people’s willingness to accept income inequality has everything to do with their perception of choice, Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobs reports.Psychologists Krishna Savani of Columbia Business School and Aneeta Rattan of Stanford University expand on the topic in a study published by Psychological Science:
“The concept of choice makes people less disturbed by facts about existing wealth inequality in the United States, more likely to underestimate the role of societal factors in individuals’ successes, less likely to support the redistribution of educational resources, and less likely to support raising taxes on the rich—even if doing so would help resolve a budget deficit crisis.
Thinking in terms of choice, we argue, activates the belief that life outcomes stem from personal agency, not societal factors, and thereby leads people to justify wealth inequality.”
In layman’s terms, we make peace with the idea that some people are destitute and others are well-off because of personal choices, rather than any possible chinks in our economical and societal armour.
Here’s how Rattan and Savani came to that conclusion:
They used six different experiments, giving half the participants in each experiment a different task. One half were asked to list out a series of choices they’d made over the last 24 hours. The other half were just asked to do something that involved no choice-making.
Afterward, researchers ran through 10 different scenarios illustrating income disparity (i.e.: “Between 1990 and 2010, the average worker’s salary has risen less than 5 per cent, while the average CEO’s salary has risen by 500 per cent.”) to gauge their reaction.
What they found was that people who’d been forced to mull over choices were far less disturbed by news of income inequality and less-inclined to support programs that benefited the poor. For example, they might back a student aid program but not one targeting low-income students only.
“These findings indicate that the culturally valued concept of choice contributes to the maintenance of wealth inequality,” the researches conclude.
It’s an interesting point at a time when the gap between America’s rich and poor grows ever wider.
Between 2005 and 2009, the richest 10% in the country saw their wealth expand from 49% to 56%, according to a survey released last year by Pew Charitable Trusts. Of more than 2,000 adults surveyed, the majority said they felt wealthy citizens simply knew the right people or were born into money.
As a result, two-thirds of consumers said there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor–up 19% from the same report just two years ago.